What Violence Isn’t

Posted on November 11, 2011


First Full Moon Over Occupy Oakland

First, let’s make sure that we begin talking about Occupy Oakland not merely as the local chapter of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t a local phenomenon, it was organized by people in Canada, had buy in from people around the nation and found New York supporters along the way to becoming a national phenomenon.

Whatever the organizers of Occupy Oakland meant it to be on Day 1, the camp has become a fluid and organic phenomenon that defies definitions of physical space, economic class, gender and race. What this means is that Occupy Oakland is, almost single-handedly, redefining the meaning of protest and the question of who is allowed to speak for the poor and disenfranchised. It’s broached the question of whether the OWS movement should restrict itself to broad discourse about financial institutions, or add a more specific and three-dimensional analysis that calls local actors to answer for their institutional failures in leadership. Where other Occupations speak for a monolithic 99%, while keeping homeless and other socially marginalized people at bay, Occupy Oakland has chosen the harder route, inviting all in, regardless of their appearance or social baggage, to participate in building a new kind of social and political movement.

While a few feet away from the camp, institutional actors in City Hall are more than happy to support the ethereal discourse of the OWS movement, they understandably hesitate to have their own management called into question. That’s their real problem with the organization; liberal mayors like the discourse just fine so long as it pegs its hopes to the stratosphere, and looks beyond the horizon to strictly national goals. Oakland residents know, however, that solves only one piece of the puzzle for a city where many have no bank accounts at all, and live paycheck to paycheck, one step away from homelessness in rental units.

Occupy Oakland has no walls and thus, no gates, or gatekeepers. When an organization pulls down its doors, there are naturally people who, for whatever reason will participate in dangerous and destructive ways. There are people who approach the camp with the intent of taking advantage of its open nature, by selling things both legal and illicit, theft and etcetera. Some of those people become members of the camp regardless, leaving behind their initial idea of targeting it for something larger. Others don’t, but they soon become aware that individuals in a loose-knit organization can also come together spontaneously for a greater good, and repel their attempts to abuse the camp’s open nature. So too, there are people who approach the camp who are mentally ill; some of those people are homeless, some aren’t. In some cases, the problems associated with their mental illness are obvious, and in others they don’t became apparent until later. Some of these people nevertheless become valuable members of the society of the camp, and of course, others can’t or won’t.

Regardless, one difficult conversation that has emerged time after time at Occupy Oakland is how to maintain the safety of the people who become part of the camp, including those who live there; and also their families, allies, friends and neutral visitors, tourists and inadvertent bystanders who may not. This conversation ranges far and wide, from police brutality, to actions that some believe are not inherently violent or dangerous—such as graffiti—but can draw real violence from police.

At its heart, this is a discussion about what violence is. Its a term bastardized by media over the last few weeks but which many of us believe retains some inherent borders and contextual meanings.

Perhaps the murder of young Alex at the foot of the entrance of Frank Ogawa Plaza BART—a transit system that also became forever identified with the tragic murder of Oscar Grant by transit police some three years ago—can refocus the attention of the city and nation on the true nature of violence, what it is and what we know it isn’t.

Violence is not the breaking of windows; anyone looking at coverage of the Penn State riots over the past two days, with its noticeable lack of the V word to describe incidents that just a week ago were characterized as violent in Oakland, must know that by now. Violence is a monolithic term and it encompasses a territory so vast, that I think most people are at a loss to properly define it.

Violence is the murder of men and women by people who use guns as answers to their rage or confusion. Violence is the use by police of projectiles to destroy flesh and bone, and even kill. Such violence by police sent two men associated with Occupy Oakland to the ICU at Highland over the past month, while no one in the city or police department answer for the crimes.

Violence is a system that tells people that when they become homeless, they are welcome to sleep alone and vulnerable in the street, or temporarily in shelters; but that they are not allowed to unify and solve their own problems of habitation, feed themselves and others, or take political and constitutionally guaranteed means to address their problems to the city, county and nation.

Violence is a populace that turns its back when its members are attacked, or when difficult problems arise that require risk or sacrifice to solve, hoping that someone else will solve the problem for them, or that they can put it behind them by walking away quickly. Violence is a system that arrests and badgers the poor and working class with overwhelming fines for quality of life crimes, harassing people based on the way they look and how much money they have daily–so that every time they leave the safety of their home, if they indeed have one to escape it, they rarely know peace. And, of course, violence is the raining down of bombs on the world’s brown and poor whenever our nation needs something contained in their homelands. Its the funding of brutal police states; military occupations and dictatorship for our own ends; the manipulation of the world’s resources and money to maintain a standard of living for one segment of an increasingly poor nation.

And the list goes on and on, in infinity. That list can contain many things that we’re still learning about, that still challenge us. But at Occupy Oakland, its easy to see what violence isn’t. It isn’t feeding people in a dark, cold camp surrounded by hostile police, as many did last night. It isn’t ignoring the presence of hostile media and creating a spontaneous candle-light vigil to remember a young man forgotten by the rest of the city. It isn’t giving tents to people trying to get out of the rain, or providing people with the opportunity to be of use to themselves and others. Violence isn’t building a community based on real, not imagined bonds, through hard work and dialogue.

This definition of “what isn’t violence” may not give us any immediate inroads to stopping real violence in our communities in Oakland and Occupy Oakland. But it may make it obvious that a massive raid by police on the people who’ve created a unique social and political movement in front of City Hall certainly won’t do anything to stop real violence in Oakland.

This writing I’ve been doing is part of a larger project with the goal of documenting the history of this unique and unprecedented movement. If you’d like to support this project  feel free to visit and contribute to my kickstarter campaign